Noted scholar and beer summit attendee Henry Louis Gates Jr. ran across an antique manuscript at an auction and decided to buy it. The handwritten pages were, as far as he could judge, a novel that was written in the 1850s by a former slave who had run from her master. Other than that, he knew nothing about the author, but he published her novel as another narrative of African-American history.
Was The Bondwoman's Narrative written by a woman? Without any proof as to the author's real identity, the sheets could have been inked by just about anyone. Was the story based on actual events or was it largely fiction? There again, without an actual person of record, the novel might or might not be authentic. It was published based on certain assumptions that were unproven in 2002.
English professors do more than teach English, and Gregg Hecimovich of Winthrop University turned detective to find out if the purported author, Hannah Crafts, was a real person, a woman, and a slave.
He started with the novel, a semi-autobiographical treatise, and figured out which slave owner and plantation fit the narrative. By combing through documents, wills, and dusty archives, he was able to figure out that there was indeed a slave woman named Hannah Bond who was owned by the Wheeler family of North Carolina.
The pieces fit in as he uncovered more connections between Ms. Bond and the incidents she described from her position as Mrs. Wheeler's maid. The professor was able to trace Ms. Bond's story from the plantation to her escape and sanctuary with the Crafts family in New Jersey. In the anti-slavery North, she was able to find work as a schoolteacher and eventually married, at some point penning her novel and then leaving it tucked into a desk drawer to be discovered by chance and then purchased by someone in a position to have it published.
Scholars are proclaiming the depth of Mr. Hecimovich's research, and how he tried to determine how a slave could have gained enough education to be able to read and write. In addition, Mr. Hecimovich found evidence that Ms. Bond had access to works of literature that were current in her day, including novels by Charles Dickens and the Bronte sisters. At a time when it was illegal to educate a slave, Ms. Bond learned, to the point where she was able to teach others.
That it happened, and the novel is proof of her literacy, is a fascinating aspect that was not evident until the author's identity was determined.
With evidence that validates much of the novel, the world as seen by a lady's maid in bondage becomes more real. Mr. Hecimovich will publish his findings, and his book will become a
companion piece to Ms. Bond's words, giving them context and adding to
the historical record. Until an actual slave woman could be tied to the novel, there was no certainty that the stories told in the book were more than some author's flights of fancy. The research changes all that, over ten years after the novel was first published.
At first, The Bondwoman's Narrative was a novel of questionable origin. Now it is a research document that cannot be excluded by anyone writing about life in the United States in the 1850s. At the time, the issue of slavery was driving politics and the average citizen had an opinion. So must your characters, if your historical novel is to have the necessary degree of realism.